There was no armoured division in the BEF, but the British did have almost 450 tanks in France, including about 150 A10 and A13 Cruisers and 75 of the heavy A12 Mark II Matildas, which proved virtually impenetrable to the German PaKs (Panzerabwehrkanone – anti-tank guns) because of their 75 mm (3-inch) armour. All these tanks used the same high-velocity 2-pounder (40 mm) gun. The BEF also had around 200 Mark II machine-gun tanks.
The Germans had a total of 2,600 tanks available for the attack, but these were all organised into ten panzer divisions and not frittered away in penny packets like the Allied tanks. This was in keeping with Guderian’s adage that ‘You hit with your closed fist, not with your fingers spread.’ Concentrated together for an attack en masse, tanks could punch a hole right through the enemy front and then keep going. Of this tank total, 525 were Pz Is armed only with machine-guns and 955 were Pz IIs mounting a weak 20 mm cannon. These obsolete light tanks were really only a match for the lightest Allied armour, such as the Renault FT, but they did have the effect of terrorising infantry, who at that time had no adequate weapons for defending themselves against tanks.
Of the more modern German tanks, only 350 Pz IIIs and 280 Pz IVs were available for the attack on France. The Pz III carried a 37 mm gun and the Pz IV a poor velocity 75 mm. To make up for the clear deficiencies in gun power, Czech-built tanks made up a high proportion of the Panzerwaffe: there were 228 Pz 38(t)s and Pz 35(t)s. These tanks had the same calibre gun as the Pz III, yet only weighed half as much. So the panzers were clearly not only outnumbered, but outgunned – 1,500 of their 2,600 tanks carried only machine-guns or puny 20 mms, whereas the vast majority of the Allied tanks had at least a 37 mm. German armour too was inadequate when compared to that of its opponents, being never thicker than 30 mm while the Char Bs had 60 mm and the Somuas 55 mm.
One-way radio was available to all medium tanks and unit commanders possessed two-way sets to issue orders. All the German tanks except the Pz Is and IIs had 4- or 5-man crews with 3 men working in the turret. This kind of teamwork greatly enhanced battlefield efficiency as even in the heat of action no one felt overworked or isolated. On the battlefield the tanks were controlled by 135 Panzerbefehlswagens (command vehicles), built either on the Pz I or Pz II chassis.
As is clear from the figures, the Panzerwaffe was heavily outclassed, both qualitatively and quantitatively and so their success would ride solely on their men, tactics and leadership.
Prior to the assault the 10 panzer divisions were organised into 5 panzerkorps and allocated to the various attacking Armies. Bock’s Army Group B got 2 of the 5 panzerkorps, although this added up to only 3 panzer divisions: the XXXIX Panzerkorps under Schmidt contained the 9th Panzer Division and was to take part in the attack on Holland, while Hoepner’s XVI Panzerkorps contained the 3rd and 4th Panzer Divisions and would thrust for Brussels and Liege. Reflecting the importance of its new role, Rundstedt’s Army Group A received the remaining 7 panzer divisions formed into three panzerkorps. Hoth’s XV contained the 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions and was positioned at the northern end of the Ardennes. Reinhardt’s XLI, containing the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions, took up the centre. Most hopes were pinned on Guderian’s XIX which was positioned at the southern end of the Ardennes and was made up of the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions as well as the crack motorised infantry regiment, Gross Deutschland.
Guderian’s Panzerkorps and Reinhardt’s Panzerkorps were both placed under the command of Panzergruppe Kleist, along with General Gustav Wietersheim’s XIV Armeekorps, which contained 3 motorised infantry divisions. This Panzergruppe had 1,200 tanks, including the largest share of Pz IIIs and IVs and the first Schutzenwagens (armoured half-tracks for carrying infantry), and formed part of Generaloberst List’s Twelfth Army. General der Kavalerie Ewald von Kleist, an efficient but cautious officer, had commanded a Panzerkorps in Poland, but as an old cavalryman was not known as a follower of the new school of tank theory. His appointment was made in an effort to reign in what the OKH saw as Guderian’s impetuousness, an expectation Kleist certainly fulfilled during the campaign.
All in all, Rundstedt’s Army Group A had 7 panzer divisions, 3 motorised infantry divisions and 35 ordinary infantry divisions, while farther north the reduced role of Bock’s Army Group B meant that it had 3 panzer divisions, 1 motorised infantry division and 24 ordinary infantry divisions.
Early on the morning of 10 May 1940, Sitzkreig gave way to Blitzkrieg. Late on the 9th the codeword ‘Danzig’ had been flashed to the German units waiting at the frontier and they had begun to move west, heading for Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. At 0530 hrs the invasion of France began when Generalleutnant Guderian took the 1st Panzer Division across the Luxembourg border – the attack that had been postponed so many times was finally under way. To be close to the fighting, Hitler had moved to a new headquarters nearer the frontier, which he called ‘Felsennest’ (Eyrie).
Even though all the really significant events were happening in the south, for the first few days all eyes were on the north, just as the Germans had intended. The German attack in Holland and northern Belgium was likened by Liddell Hart to a matador’s cloak, the intention of which was to dazzle the bull, or in this case the Anglo-French armies, so that they didn’t see the real thrust coming.
First the Luftwaffe launched surprise raids on fifty Allied air bases. This was followed up on the 10th by Fallschirmjägers (paratroops) being dropped into Holland in a daring attack with the objective of capturing and holding the bridges on the Maas over which the 9th Panzer Division would move on its way to Rotterdam. They succeeded and by the 13th, Hubicki’s panzers had reached the Dutch city. On the 11th, glider-borne Fallschirmjägers had landed on the roof of Eben Emael, the much-vaunted Belgian fortress near Maastricht, quickly putting it out of action. The road to Brussels and Antwerp was now open for Hoepner’s XIV Panzerkorps.
Of course events in the north were just a feint, a mere side-show put on to persuade the Allies that this would be the Schwerpunkt, the point of main German effort. It worked brilliantly and the Anglo-French armies moved north to meet Army Group B, aided by the fact that the Luftwaffe purposefully didn’t attack them on the way. Meanwhile the seven panzer divisions of Army Group A that had assembled on the Luxembourg frontier over the previous days were now threading their way through the Ardennes on their way to the Meuse, 70 miles away. The 1,500 tanks that made up the three panzerkorps stretched back one hundred miles from the frontier.
According to Oberst Günther von Blumentritt, Rundstedt’s chief planner, the Germans saw the advance through the Ardennes as more of an approach march than an operation. Staff officers had had to put in a huge amount of preparatory work, poring over maps and aerial photos to make out what passable roads existed and then designating specific routes of advance for each division. Once they did get moving, effective traffic management was essential to keep the armoured train moving smoothly and quickly on the steep, narrow and winding roads. Despite all the planning, inevitably there were traffic jams, delays and stoppages, one of which lasted a whole day and was only sorted out when an officer went up in a plane to act as an aerial traffic warden.
But contrary to Allied expectations, the Ardennes, while steeply hilled, densely wooded and serviced by only a few narrow roads, was far from impassable as the panzers were quickly proving. Following on after the panzers came the three motorised infantry divisions under General von Wietersheim and thirty-five ordinary infantry divisions, the latter marching cross country in order to leave the few roads solely to the vehicles. Eighty battalions of motorised infantry took part in the invasion, yet only two of these were equipped with the newly-built 251 half-tracks, all the rest travelling by truck. The infantry were also supported by four 6-gun Stug batteries.
For the purpose of movement the panzerkorps were divided into three layers, the first two made up of armour, the third of motorised infantry. It must have been quite a sight to behold, this cavalcade of tanks trundling through the scenic countryside, followed up by the ganglia of supply in lorries and horse-drawn wagons, and flanked on either side of the road by grey-clad infantry marching through the woods. Allied pilots did spot the armoured columns and reported them to their superiors, but inexplicably were given no orders to attack.
As they had expected, the Germans met very little resistance as they travelled through the Ardennes, easily brushing aside the weak opposition of the Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais and two French cavalry divisions. The panzers moved with all possible speed, because the whole plan pivoted on their getting across the Meuse before the Allies realised what was going on. The defenders had mined, blocked or demolished many of the approach roads, but while these caused some delay to the onrushing tanks, they failed to hold them up for very long.
In those early days Guderian’s greatest fear was not of enemy attacks on the ground, but from the air. He knew that bottled in as tightly as they were, with their movements channelled by the few available roads, the armoured columns were extremely vulnerable to air attack. But no air attacks came in those early days and didn’t begin until the Germans had already reached the Meuse; by then the planes were already too late and suffered heavy losses as a result. Still the Allies had not realised that this German armoured thrust in the south was the Schwerpunkt of their whole attack and represented a deadly danger to their armies in the north.
Despite the clear lack of opposition, the natural caution of Guderian’s commander, von Kleist, asserted itself on the 11th when he ordered that the 10th Panzer Division change its direction so as to meet a reported force of French cavalry. Guderian, unwilling to dilute his forces by one third just to meet a hypothetical threat, ignored the order. The French cavalry never appeared, but this was just the first of many halt orders Guderian was to face along the way.
By the evening of the 12th, the three panzerkorps were ranged along the eastern bank of the Meuse on a 64-km (40-mile) front stretching from Dinant to Sedan. They were surprised to discover how relatively feeble the French Meuse defences were, having expected extensive field fortifications bristling with heavy artillery and well manned by troops. On paper indeed the Meuse looked well defended, with 150,000 troops housed in concrete blockhouses along a 150-km (95-mile) front. But in reality these defenders were inferior troops of poor fighting quality, consisting mainly of elderly reservists and soldiers unfit for more active service, all the better divisions having been sent north to meet the German threat there. Those left behind lacked modern weaponry, in particular anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns.
The weakness of the Meuse defences meant that the panzers would be able to start crossing the river almost straightaway instead of having to wait for the infantry corps to come up and launch an attack; this could have taken as long as a week, a pause that the French were counting on and during which time they could have brought up reinforcements.
By the evening of the 12th, Guderian’s Panzerkorps had reached the Meuse valley and captured Sedan, scene of another French military disaster in 1870 when they were roundly beaten by the Prussians. Now another Prussian was on the verge of inflicting a second painful defeat. Guderian and his trusty Chief of Staff, Nehring, set up their headquarters in a nearby hotel, but were soon forced to abandon it when an enemy air attack brought a stuffed boar’s head mounted on the wall crashing down within inches of the shaken Corps Commander.
Kleist ordered him to attempt to cross the river with his panzer divisions the next day. Guderian now altered and reissued orders from war games at Koblenz so as to minimise delay and the night preceding the attack was spent in bringing the artillery into position. The Germans had practised river crossings with tanks on the Moselle in Germany, but not while under hostile fire. No one really knew what to expect the next day, but the whole operation pivoted on the panzers getting across the river quickly.
At 1600 hrs on the 13th the Germans opened up on the defenders with artillery and Guderian positioned his Pz IVs and 88 mms so as to fire directly into the French concrete blockhouses that dominated the heights on the other side of the river. Then he called in waves of Stuka dive-bombers to terrorise the defenders. Guderian had requested the commander of the Luftwaffe’s Third Airflotte to launch continual attacks for the entire duration of the Meuse crossing, rather than just a large, one-off attack, thus giving the attackers continual air support while keeping the defenders’ heads down. As a result, twelve squadrons of dive-bombers were used in the Sedan sector and they continued to fly missions all that crucial day. In this way, aircraft took on the role more traditionally filled by artillery.
Meanwhile the panzer divisions’ engineers laboured to build pontoon bridges. Guderian went to the crossing place of the 1st Panzer Division and crossed the river himself in an assault boat. On the opposite bank he met Oberstleutnant Hermann Balck, commander of a Schutzenregiment (rifle regiment), who greeted him with the words: ‘Joy riding in canoes on the Meuse is forbidden!’ echoing Guderian’s own words during a practice run on the Moselle. Balck and his men had formed the first German bridgehead across the Meuse, crossing the river in rubber boats under cover of the air attack and seizing enough ground to allow the engineers to begin building a pontoon bridge for the tanks.
Balck, like Guderian, was a Prussian with proud military antecedents. He had distinguished himself in the First World War as a company commander on the Western and Eastern fronts, winning the Iron Cross First Class and being wounded seven times. Retained in the Reichswehr after the war, he had twice turned down appointments to the General Staff, preferring to remain as a front-line officer. During the Polish campaign he’d been responsible for refitting and reorganising the panzer divisions and was to prove an inspired panzer commander himself.
Elements of the Gross Deutschland (GD) Regiment, the most prestigious unit in the German Army, crossed the river and headed for the Marfee Heights, a commanding position held by the French. Guderian’s attack was aimed specifically at the junction of two French armies, the Ninth and the Second, always the weakest point in any defensive line. The morale of these garrison troops soon collapsed under the continual bombardment. The French 55th Infantry Division was routed and went into headlong retreat, telling stories of thousands of German tanks, even though Guderian’s panzers hadn’t even crossed the Meuse yet. So far the tank was having more effect on morale than it was actually having as an offensive weapon.